How to establish your reason behind saying "no"

I’m worth more than a disposable, temporary employee. But, I need to do the work behind the scenes to prove it.

I wrote the following with photography in mind, but you could adapt it to any business.


Yesterday, someone[1. That someone shall remain nameless.] wanted to know how much I’d charge to cover an event. I scribbled down some non-reimbursable expenses, crunched the simple numbers and replied.

“Um, can you give us a discount?” (paraphrased)

I immediately remembered this going around the internet:

Work for free or for full price. Never cheap.

Thanks to Nick Campbell from greyscalegorilla for the image

Problem: I’m terrible at negotiating.

I grit my teeth, convinced that I could use the experience. I reluctantly replied with a discounted offer. Gah!

I’m still waiting for a reply as they think about it.

What’s your full price?

Several months ago, Mike Kang told me I needed to write my business plan.[2. At the moment, I have a bit more free time to work on stuff that’s been in queue. I’m waiting to get accepted to Cal Poly Pomona or Cal State LA for Fall 2010. So, I aim to complete that by June.]

Problem: I’m lacking a business plan!

Here are some obvious aspects of photography:

  • creative fee and time
  • initial equipment costs (camera, lenses, strobes, computer, software)
  • camera maintenance
  • upgrades (camera body, camera lenses, camera strobes, computer, hard drive storage, flash memory, software)
  • transportation (time, fuel, car maintenance, savings for future car purchase)
  • learning
  • websites (domain name purchasing/renewal, website hosting, image hosting services)

I can’t break down these numbers for you. They’re different for each person. I would’ve kept going, but there’s a lot.

If you don’t know your Cost of Doing Business (CoDB), you will never be able to state a confident quote/estimate.

(Are you a photographer? Read through the licensing guide that ASMP has compiled. It’s ridiculously informative.)

Problem: I haven’t even read the Licensing Guide.

I need to read and execute its advice. Hush.

You’ll be paid when you’re legit

After a five months with my first DSLR camera, someone paid me[3. The pay was pretty good, too!] to photograph an event. Oh, it was the first event I covered.

A year later, that customer returned. (They’re awesome!)

In contrast, I’m “negotiating” with a someone that’s probably conditioned with this mindset. I actually shot an event for them before, pro bono. They loved my photos, “especially the black and white ones.” They know I’m good. Yet now, they’re still trying to lowball.

I’m not sure if they’re aware of it, but they’re indirectly saying “free or forget it.” If I accept, I’m working at a loss.

You’re probably wasting your time. Don’t burn the bridges. Be gracious and decline.

How should I charge when I’m new?

This topic is always being discussed. I’m going to link to several extraordinary articles and you’re going to read them:

You didn’t skim. I know you didn’t. You need this to work too much to skim.

Oh, did you see that video embedded in the three-part series of John Harrington’s posts? I’m not linking to the video. Read through his posts and find it. Watch it several times. I want to see that “Aha!” moment.

Who do you think you are?

A burgeoning professional photographer.[4. I’m not sure which market I’m going to attack. Unless I move, it’ll be tough in Los Angeles.]

I’m not a grouch or cocky. I’m just trying to do more than survive, and I need every dollar I charge.

If I just wanted to get by, why do all this?

The point

  • Take free projects/assignments on your own terms.
  • Don’t give out arbitrary numbers. Determine your full price.
  • Don’t be the cheap/free photographer. Be the awesome photographer, but not because you’re cheap/free.
  • Don’t be a starving artist.


Notes about this post

  • I wrote this in about 5.5 hours.
  • I almost stopped at 300 words, but ended up with about 650 words (not including the links to the articles and resources).
  • I reinstalled the FD Word Statistics [WordPress] Plugin to visually motivate myself to write more clearly.
  • Skeptical comments will remain untouched, while cynical comments will be tagged appropriately — but not deleted — so you know which ones to skip. (“As opposed to a cynic, a skeptic is doubtful but still open-minded and logical enough to consider new input.” Steve Pavlina)
  • Don’t verbally abuse each other. Treat others as you would treat yourself.

Published by

Bryan Villarin

Bryan works at Automattic. Cat whisperer. Sometimes, a photographer and card magician.

5 thoughts on “How to establish your reason behind saying "no"”

  1. Hi Bryan,

    Thought of you the other day while watching KTLA channel 5 news (Time Warner). They are asking for applications from bands that have not yet signed a contract and who have a video of their performance skill.


  2. Very informative and helpful article. I am going to read the licensing guide – it’s something that I have been needing to learn more about. I am so glad that this post made it past 300 words and to what it is here. I am sorry to hear about your discount situation – I know how you feel. Sometimes doing stuff for free for people – they somehow they expect your to offer to do future work free or less to nothing even if they really value your work! Thanks for taking the time to write up this info. I’ll be coming back to study up and get my numbers and info right for myself.


  3. I totally agree with the work for your price or free. I’d also say you can even work for cheap with the caveat that if you decide to say yes, make sure it is really something you want to do and would do for free anyway. Make sure your client knows why you are doing this for them and let them know what it would have cost them. Make it clear that you are doing them a favor.

    For example, I was asked to be a 2nd shooter at an event recently. As I was doing this as a favor for a friend, I told them how much I typically charge, but I let them know I would do it for free. They were grateful and at the end of the day, they insisted I get paid something, so it was really a win-win for everyone.

    P.S. Just to clarify, the reason to bother to with a business plan is to figure out your strategy for making a profit with your business. You might find that your business idea doesn’t work (expenses too high, clients not willing to pay as much as you are asking, market is too saturated) in which case, that’s good you haven’t wasted that much of your time and money and worked really hard on something that was not likely to succeed anyway. Of course, just b/c you have a plan doesn’t mean you’ll succeed either, but I think it makes it easier to separate the winning ideas from the not so winning ones. Plus it gives you something to refer back to when you’ve forgotten why you’re doing what you’re doing.

    If you don’t have it already, check out John Harrington’s book; it’s worth the purchase price for sure.


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